Category Archives: Plants

Becoming Summer

Yellow Goat’s Beard flower and seed pod, 11 June 2021, Moraine State Park (photo by Kate St. John)

12 June 2021

Temperatures have fluctuated widely in the past couple of weeks — from chilly damp to searing heat — but the plants and insects keep on their steady march to summer.

Above, yellow goat’s beard (Tragopogon dubius) now has both flowers and seeds.

Below, this sprig of bedstraw (Galium sp) has almost finished blooming with just one flower and many seeds. The plant feels sticky because its stems, leaves, and seed pods are all covered in tiny hooked bristles that act like Velcro.

Bedstraw gone to seed, 11 June 2021, Moraine State Park (photo by Kate St. John)

In Schenley Park the tulip trees (Liriodendron tulipifera) have finished blooming, the “tulips” are fading and dropping their petals.

Tuliptree flower is fading, 8 June 2021, Schenley Park (photo by Kate St. John)

As birdsong wanes the bugs are taking over the soundscape. I’ve already heard the first crickets and an unknown-to-me insect that buzzes at 5,000 hertz in Schenley Park.

And who is this? None of us could name him yesterday at Moraine State Park. Can you identify this hunched insect with bright orange antenna tips? If so, please leave a comment.

UPDATE: It’s a leaf-footed bug, probably Acanthocephalus terminalis, thanks to Kim’s comment.

Who is this? Insect at Moraine State Park, 11 June 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)
Who is this? Insect at Moraine State Park, 11 June 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

(photos by Kate St. John)

Rhododenrons: Wild and Tame

Rhododendron in the wild at Ferncliff Peninsula, PA, 1 July 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

30 May 2021

In Pennsylvania we plant azaleas and rhododendrons in our gardens but we can also find them in the wild. I am reminded of this in late May when the cultivated rhododendrons and wild azaleas bloom.

At the garden store azalea bushes are short dense shrubs that bloom in April, while rhododendrons are tall woody shrubs that bloom in late May. Scientifically they are all Rhododendrons with minor differences. The big difference for me is that the garden plants bloom four to six weeks before the wild ones.

Yesterday I found flowering rhododendrons on Pitt’s campus. Some were white (below) like their wild progenitors shown at top in Fayette County.

Cultivated rhododendron at Univ of Pittsburgh, white, 29 May 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

Others were hybridized to create purple flowers.

Cultivated rhododendron at Univ of Pittsburgh, purple, 29 May 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

To see the wild ones I visit the Laurel Highlands around the Fourth of July, especially Ferncliff Peninsula at Ohiopyle State Park. Nowadays it pays to go a little earlier than the Fourth because climate change has moved things up.

Meanwhile last weekend at Moraine State Park Karyn Delaney found wild azalea in bloom.

Wild azalea at Moraine State Park, 22 May 2021 (photo by Karyn Delaney)

Sometimes wild azaleas (Rhododenron periclymenoides) are called “pinkster” in southwestern Pennsylvania but it’s not because the flower is pink. They were named “pinxter” for the Dutch word for Pentecost because wild azaleas bloom at that time of year.

This year Pentecost was 23 May. Wild azalea is blooming right on time.

(photos by Kate St. John and Karyn Delaney)

p.s. What’s the difference between an azalea and a rhododendron? Not much. They have slightly different leaves and azalea flowers usually have 5 stamens while other rhododendrons have 10.

Attacks Trees From Underground

9 May 2021

Have you ever seen these long black ropes draped on a fallen log? They were hidden under the bark before the tree died, and they’re the reason the tree died. These are mycelial cords or rhizomorphs of Armillaria, a genus of fungi that ultimately kills trees. It attacks the trees from underground.

Armillaria consists of 10 species which are easiest to identify by their mushrooms, the reproductive stage of the fungus. Honey mushrooms appear near the base of an infected tree but the spores rarely cause infection in other trees.

Fruiting bodies of Armillaria solidipes, Cook Forest, PA (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Instead, Armillaria spreads by the rhizomorphs shown at top which travel only eight inches below the soil surface, advancing about 3.3 ft (1 m) per year. As they make contact with another tree they invade the roots and then the trunk. If a tree is already infected it will spread the fungus via root grafts.

Underground spread of armillaria disease (illustration from Wikimedia Commons, cropped)

Armillaria spreads so far and lives so long that a single Armillaria ostoyae in the Malheur National Forest in Oregon was found to be 2,400 years old and the largest living organism on earth.

As the infection takes hold, the fungus invades more deeply via white mycelium sheets that damage the roots or girdle the tree. Here a fallen black cherry reveals its cause of death.

Black cherry toppled near its base due to Armillaria, as seen by white sheets inside the wood, Schenley Park April 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

Schenley Park is riddled with Armillaria but we have no hint that a tree is invaded until it topples, sometimes at the roots.

Trees are so stoic. No matter what attacks them, they just have to stand there and take it.

(photos by Kate St. John and from Wikimedia Commons)

Blue And Green

Indigo bunting, Homewood Cemetery, 5 May 2021 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)

8 May 2021

Now that leaves are on the trees the bluest birds have shown up.

Young oak leaves, Schenley Park, 1 May 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

Charity Kheshgi photographed an indigo bunting (Passerina cyanea) at Homewood Cemetery on Wednesday 5 May …

… and a cerulean warbler (Setophaga cerulea) at Frick Park on 4 May.

Click the white arrows on the right side of photos to see more views.

By the way, today is Migratory Bird Day. Don’t miss this opportunity to get outdoors.

(photos by Charity Kheshgi via Instagram)

A Last Look At April

Golden ragwort, Raccoon Creek State Park, 26 April 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

1 May 2021

This week April’s wildflowers faded, May flowers began to bloom, and the trees in Schenley Park leafed out.

On 26 April I found golden ragwort, wild geranium and white violets along the Lake Trail at Raccoon Creek State Park in Beaver County.

Wild geranium, Raccoon Creek State Park, 26 April 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)
White violets, Raccoon Creek State Park, 26 April 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

The city’s heat island effect was evident among the trees. The redbuds in Schenley Park leafed out while those in Beaver County were a week behind, still flowering.

Redbud leafs out, Schenley Park, 28 April 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

We have so many leaves that they almost obscured an eastern screech-owl on the last day of April.

Eastern screech-owl, Schenley Park, 30 April 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

Welcome to the month of May.

(photos by Kate St. John)

Flowers Before The Snow

  • White redbud, Frick Park, 18 April 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

24 April 2021

Spring weather was up and down this week with highs in the mid 60s on Tuesday and a low below freezing yesterday morning. Most discouraging, though, was Wednesday morning’s snow.

Long before the snow, I visited Barking Slopes to see spring wildflowers and paused to admire white redbuds at Frick Park as shown in the slideshow. Here’s a little bit more about the photos.

(photos by Kate St. John)

Between The Showers

Raindrops on a trout lily, closed flower, Jennings, 12 April 2021

17 April 2021

Though it didn’t rain a lot this week April showers and chilly weather put a damper on outdoor plans.

On Monday 12 April we dodged the raindrops at Jennings to find ruby-crowned kinglets, field sparrows and a palm warbler. Rain beaded up on the trout lily leaves and rolled right off the dog violets. We got wet at the end of our walk. It poured on my way home.

Dog violets, Jennings, 12 April 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

In Schenley Park …

Redbud (Cercis canadensis) was in full bloom by Tuesday 13 April.

Redbud in bloom, Schenley, 13 April 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

This jetbead (Rhodotypos scandens) flower was fading by Thursday 15 April. Native to China and Korea, jetbead was planted as an ornamental but became invasive in eastern North America.

Fading flower on jetbead, Schenley, 15 April 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

Squawroot (Conopholis americana), a native parasitic plant, is now emerging at the base of oaks and beeches. Alternative names include American cancer-root, bumeh or bear corn.

Squawroot emerging from the soil, Schenley, 13 April 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

As the leaves come out so do the insects. Even though these hackberry leaves are not fully open yet, tiny winged insects are crawling in the crevices. When the warblers arrive they will eat the bugs. This tree can hardly wait!

Insects in new hackberry leaves, Schenley, 13 April 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

After Friday’s chilly drizzle I hope for warm dry weather soon.

(photos by Kate St. John)

Sunday Flowers

  • Blue-eyed Mary, 11 April 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

12 April 2021

As soon as the trees leaf out the ground will be shady in Pennsylvania’s woodlands so our spring wildflowers are timed to bloom in April. I went to see them on Sunday at Braddock’s Trail Park in Westmoreland County, a place famous for blue-eyed Mary.

The captions identify each flower in the slideshow. Here’s a little more information:

If you live in Pittsburgh Braddock’s Trail Park is worth a visit for April wildflowers. More are coming soon. As of Sunday the trillium hadn’t bloomed yet.

(photos by Kate St. John)

Spring Green

Spring green among the trees, Frick Park, 8 April 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

10 April 2021

This week Pittsburgh’s sugar maples are clothed in spring green flowers while the oaks remain bare. Most trees bloom long before leaf out so their leaves won’t block the pollinators. These flowers take full advantage of the wind.

Sugar maple flowers, Schenley Park, 9 April 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

Did your allergies kick in this week? The trees are throwing off lots of pollen with little rain to lay the dust.

Insect-pollinated flowers will follow soon. On 3 April pawpaw flowers (Asimina triloba) were still tiny buds in Schenley Park but by the time they bloom the stems will be long and flexible. The dark maroon fetid-smelling flowers will hang like bells to attract flies and beetles. Click here to see a pawpaw flower.

Pawpaw flower bud, Schenley Park, 3 April 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

Eastern redbud flowers (Cercis canadensis) had not opened in Schenley as of 7 April, but they showed promise.

Redbuds, Schenley Park, 7 April 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

Spring cress (Cardamine bulbosa) was blooming at Raccoon Wildflower Reserve on Easter Day.

Spring cress, Raccoon Wildflower Reserve, 4 April 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

And Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica) were open in Schenley Park on 9 April.

Virginia bluebells, Schenley Park, 9 April 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

This winter I noticed that when moss grows up the base of saplings it looks like leggings on the trees. At Raccoon Wildflower Reserve I found an entire group of saplings wearing mossy leggings. Click here to see the whole group. (Anyone know what this mossy phenomenon is?)

Mossy “leggings” on saplings, Raccoon Creek Wildflower Reserve, 4 April 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

Spring green will continue in the coming weeks as tiny leaves pop open and more trees bloom.

(photos by Kate St. John)